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In Search of Sir George Hubert Wilkins The career of Sir George Hubert Wilkins has been described by some as the most successful of any 20th century explorer. He took the first moving pictures from an aircraft and filmed the first footage of actual battle. He was the first to fly an aircraft over the Antarctic, the first to fly a plane across the Arctic and the first to discover new land using an aircraft. He seemed to revel in risk, as war correspondent Charles Bean wrote: “I sometimes doubted whether any course of action was for long agreeable to him unless it led eventually to danger.” Yet despite this, Wilkins is little known to most Australians. BY RODERICK EIME
ORN IN ARID COUNTRY near Mount Bryan, 170 km north of Adelaide, on 31 October 1888, George Hubert Wilkins grew up loving adventure and the outdoor life. His parents, stricken by drought and debt, moved to Adelaide, where the teenager worked in a number of jobs and continued his studies at university. Fascinated by the new media of film, he abandoned his life in Adelaide to work first as a cinema operator in Sydney, and later as a cinematographer for the famous Gaumont Studios. Over the next few years he gathered newsreel footage and filmed travelogues and documentaries in 27 countries. One such assignment took him to the birthplace of British aviation, Hendon, where he quickly took an active interest in aviation. As well as learning to fly, Wilkins filmed the first scenes of England from the air, often just hanging on to wires and struts. Wilkins also covered the brief but savage First Balkan War of 1912, where Turkey was fighting an alliance of Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia. He became the first person to film actual combat when he recorded the defeat of the Ottomans at Lule Burgas in ghastly detail. This involved considerable risk; Wilkins was knocked unconscious by a dud Bulgarian artillery shell and narrowly escaped being executed as a spy by the Turks. In 1913, at the end of a lazy assignment in the Caribbean filming a cocoa documentary, he received an irresistible invitation:
Informal portrait of Captain George Hubert Wilkins, taken c1918. Australian War Memorial, P03171.003. WOULD YOU GO IMPORTANT ARCTIC EXPEDITION MEANS TWO OR THREE YEAR ABSENCE GOOD TERMS EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY REPLY CABLE URGENT
With the reply of “YES”, Wilkins agreed to join the Canadian Arctic Expedition led by Vilhjamur Stefansson. Though the ill-fated expedition became notorious for poor leadership that contributed to the deaths of 17 members of the expedition, the drawn out, risky adventure in the Arctic gave Wilkins many lessons in the skills of polar survival. However, after learning of the outbreak of the First World War and the death of his father, he decided to conclude his involvement with the Canadian Arctic Expedition in 1916. On the way to Australia via a circuitous and dangerous route that included surviving a U-boat attack, he met Frank Hurley, the Australian photographer who had accompanied the Shackleton Antarctic Expedition. The two would work as official photographers for the Australian War Records Section under historian Charles Bean. In this non-combatant Australian Heritage 25
Soldiers running to take shelter from a heavy shell-burst at Glencorse Wood in the Ypres salient. The picture carries the following inscription in Wilkins’s hand: “A shell burst in a front line trench in France. This was the last picture I took that day for the next shell wrecked the camera”. Wilkins did not note that he was wounded in the blast. Australian War Memorial, E00737.
role, Wilkins was wounded nine times and twice decorated for bravery whilst on the Western Front. Yet despite this, he maintained his steadfast modesty
and was mortified at the praise heaped on him, including that of his supreme commander General Sir John Monash who described him as the bravest soldier in his army.
The scientific staff of Wilkins’s northern Australian expedition. From left to right: George Wilkins, leader of the expedition; Vladimir Kotoff, mammalogist; J Edgar Young, botanist; O G Cornwell, Ornithologist. Byrd Polar Research Centre Archival Program, Wilkins 32_14_142. 26 Australian Heritage
After the war, the Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, announced The England-toAustralia air race, carrying a £10,000 reward from the Australian Government. The 31-year-old Wilkins was co-opted into an allAustralian crew of a converted Blackburn long-range bomber named Kangaroo, ironically in place of Charles Kingsford Smith. Kangaroo did not complete the race as it crashed in Crete with engine trouble that was generally thought to be the result of sabotage. Even before the 1919 race, Wilkins dreamed of exploring Antarctica. His first efforts began badly with John L Cope’s ineffectual British Imperial Antarctic Expedition of 1920. Another, in 1922, was thwarted when Shackleton’s last expedition was cut short by the polar explorer’s death aboard the unreliable ship, Quest.
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The flight of the Blackburn Bomber, Kangaroo, from England to Australia came to an undignified end in Crete. Byrd Polar Research Centre Archival Program, Wilkins32_8_16.
On his return, Wilkins left for Russia, claiming that he had been “shanghaied” into reporting the efforts of the Quakers to provide aid for famine-stricken Russia. As well as creating the publicity film, New Worlds for Old, he met and interviewed Lenin and may have conducted espionage for the British Secret Intelligence Service. Recognising Wilkins’s thoroughness as an explorer, in 1923 the British Museum rewarded him with his own expedition to collect native flora and fauna of northern Queensland and the Northern Territory. Over the next two-and-a-half years he came to realise that both were in such decline that he wrote to the British Museum that he was “rather ashamed” of his collection. During this expedition, Wilkins gradually gained the trust of nervous local tribes who were used to dodging white man’s bullets. While his collection of preserved animals, plants, rocks, native artefacts and photographs was lauded by the British Museum (a species of rock wallaby and lizard were named after him to honour his work), Wilkins’s scathing indictment of white man’s subjugation of both the bush and its inhabitants in his book Undiscovered Australia ended his ‘golden boy’ status at home.
Despite this, Wilkins’ international reputation was growing, and he was able to attract support for the aviation adventures he had dreamed of for so long. After years of planning, aircraft testing, navigational training and a string of inevitable and expensive mishaps, in April 1928 Wilkins and Carl Ben Eielson became the first to fly across the Arctic in an aeroplane when they flew a modified single-engine Lockheed Vega from Alaska to Spitsbergen. “No flight has been made anywhere, at any time, which could be compared with it”, wrote Roald Amundsen, who had made the trans-Arctic flight two years earlier in the semi-rigid airship Italia. Despite completing one of the
Sir Hubert Wilkins and his wife, Suzanne. The actress would spend so much of her married life away from her husband that she described herself as “the loneliest wife in the world”. Byrd Polar Research Centre Archival Program, Wilkins 35_20_11.
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Noteworthy People most famous and impressive journeys of all time, Wilkins was embarrassed to be feted by none other than King George V and in another act of self-deprecation declined to be named ‘Sir George’. Rather than presume to adopt the King’s name, he chose instead to be known as Sir Hubert thereafter. While in England, Wilkins respectfully invited Sir Douglas Mawson to lead an international meteorological monitoring project. Appalled by the effects of drought in Australia and severe winter in Russia, The persistence of Wilkins and Carl Ben Eielson was finally rewarded in 1928, when they became Wilkins firmly believed he the first to make a trans-Arctic flight in an aeroplane. Byrd Polar Research Centre Archival Program, Wilkins could improve the lot of 33_2_32. mankind with better longfound it difficult to gain backing the way to Manhattan. Suzanne term weather forecasting. Bennett, a Broadway actress born from the Australian Government for To this end, he proposed a series Suzanne Evans in Walhalla in his endeavours. Instead, he found of weather stations throughout the Victoria, had been invited to greet Arctic and Antarctic. Mawson, willing and enthusiastic support perhaps miffed by the younger Wilkins for the cameras simply from newspaper giant, William amateur’s fame, dismissed Wilkins’s because she was the only attractive Randolph Hearst, who would plans as “crazy” and later wrote Australian lady available. By the profit shamelessly from Wilkins’s that “Wilkins knows nothing about end of the day they were in love. In adventures. Wilkins and Eielson science”. Wilkins, despite such September 1928 Wilkins proposed flew mapping sorties over Graham provocation, did not return the to Suzanne as he set off back to Land in their trusty Vega, becoming animosity. Antarctica. the first to fly over the continent as A much more pleasant meeting well as the first to map uncharted Perhaps because of Mawson’s took place as Wilkins and Eielson land from the air. Though some of derision and the harsh wording of boarded the tugboat Macon on his discoveries were shown to be Undiscovered Australia, Wilkins wrong (he reported that Graham Land was an island off Antarctica when it is actually a peninsula) his achievement is commemorated by many names on the Antarctic map. Suzanne was pleased to see her fiancé return in 1929, but the two were soon parted again, when Wilkins participated in another Hearst-funded, historymaking expedition. After a false start in March, he was among the famous guests aboard the airship Graf Zeppelin in August when it completed a journey around the world in a little over 21 days. Hubert and Suzanne were married in the Cleveland registry office Wilkins (left) relaxes with the reporter Grace Marguerite, Lady Hay Drummond-Hay, (right) upon his return. A month later he and the manager of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company, Hugo Eckener (at the head of the was mapping Antarctica again from table) aboard the Graf Zeppelin during the Zeppelin’s round the world flight. Byrd Polar the air. Though Suzanne would Research Centre Archival Program, Zeppelin-15. frequently call herself “the loneliest 28 Australian Heritage
Noteworthyy People p wife in the world”, the marriage was a truly happy one. In 1931, Wilkins embarked on his most ambitious and perhaps foolhardy exploit. He had long believed that polar exploration by submarine was the future and he wanted to prove this by taking a submarine under the Arctic ice cap all the way to the Pole. Though Wilkins found sponsorship from Hearst, the bulk of the money would not be paid until after he had reached his objective. Furthermore, the US O-12, a WWI coastal submarine, was clearly not up to the task, despite being renamed Nautilus and extensively rebuilt at great expense. It had to be towed to Cork in Ireland after having a string of mechanical problems crossing the Atlantic, but Wilkins proceeded to the Arctic, urged on by Hearst to continue to the Pole. A check of Nautilus on a day ideal for diving under the ice put an end to Wilkins’s plans. Though the propellers and the rudder were intact, both diving planes had been broken off. Though it is not known for certain, this highly selective damage seems to indicate sabotage by the crew, intent on preventing what seemed like a suicide mission. Wilkins was able to prove that a submarine could work beneath the polar ice by ramming Nautilus against the floe and forcing itself under for a short time, but this was poor compensation. He was crippled financially, as Hearst made good his threat to withhold payment, and his credibility was in tatters. In the 1930s Wilkins went on to visit Antarctica four more times, acting as advisor and planner for the millionaire explorer, Lincoln Ellsworth. He also participated in the fruitless search for Sigismund Levanevsky’s aircraft, which went missing over the Arctic in 1937. When WWII broke out, Wilkins contracted himself to the US Military and served in a variety of roles including espionage and Arctic survival training. While on an ‘economic survey’ to Asia in 1940, in Singapore he spoke
to the Japanese Consul General, who he had met during the Graf Zeppelin voyage. After much sake, the Consul blurted out Tokyo’s plan to invade Pearl Harbour. “Go on, make a report,” he challenged, roaring with laughter, “no-one will believe a man who took a submarine almost to the North Pole for a dare.” Wilkins made his report, but the Consol was all too right about the report’s reception. Wilkins lived to see two of his long-held ambitions fulfilled. In 1957, ten nations, including the USA and the USSR, established 50 research stations in Antarctica. Meteorological monitoring was one of their many tasks. The next year the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, appropriately named Nautilus, reached the North Pole completely submerged. Despite Wilkins’s down-to-Earth persona, he privately maintained deeply spiritual beliefs and was interested in the paranormal. He believed he could receive radio signals, a skill he discovered by accident on the Quest expedition and often subsequently demonstrated to amazed companions. While searching for Levanevsky he experimented with ESP with writer Harold Sherman.
In his later years Wilkins met with some members of New York Explorers Club and others to develop a secret theology based on The Book of Urantia. After speaking to Suzanne on the telephone, Sir George Hubert Wilkins passed away quietly in a hotel room in Massachusetts on 30 November 1958, a slight smile on his face. His ashes were taken to the North Pole aboard the submarine USS Skate on 17 March 1959. Its captain and crew recited Wilkins’s own prayer as his ashes were spread over the ice: Our heavenly Father, wouldst thou give us the liberty without license and the power to do good for mankind with the self-restraint to avoid using that power for self aggrandizement.
The Author Roderick Eime is a freelance photojournalist.
Further Reading The Last Explorer, Hubert Wilkins, Australia’s Unknown Hero by Simon Nasht, published by Hodder, 2005. The Making of an Explorer by Stuart E. Jenness, published by McGill Queen, 2004. ◆
In 1931 Wilkins attempted to take the submarine, Nautilus, below the ice of the North Pole. The attempt failed, probably as a result of sabotage by the crew. Byrd Polar Research Centre Archival Program, Nautilus-3.
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